Jordan Kahn has chosen to tantalize diners at his Vespertine restaurant in Los Angeles with a sequenced multi sensory experience. One that resonates long after you leave the quiet enclave of Culver City and the lighted column appropriately named the “Waffle” for its soft geometric shape covered with a steel grid. In keeping with its location Kahn’s gustatory exploration is unexpected, somewhat nebulous, and certainly not consistent with any recognizable restaurant format, especially in the city it calls home. In some ways it is reminiscent of restaurants like Mugaritz or Enigma in Spain, Borago or Central in Latin America, as well some very familiar names in the Nordic region. Kahn’s career, initially as a pastry chef took him through the kitchens of French Laundry, Per Se, Alinea, Varietal, and Michael Mina’s Louis XIV before he moved over to head the savory kitchen at Red Medicine where he delved into the flavors of South East Asia. The highly conceptualized cuisine at Vespertine however, is entirely Kahn’s own with hints of his mentors Keller and Achatz who as he says he was so obsessed with in his early days in their kitchens, “I would even go home and practice how to walk like Thomas or cut like Grant and those people have made such a huge impact on me.”
In a world obsessed with chefs and gastronomy, Kahn is one of the new generation of gastro stars who are choosing to break boundaries interpreting and creating a sophisticated cuisine that is technical, artistic and totally unfamiliar. Agitated food scribes who when confronted with a concept that does not fit existing parameters, bank on sensationalism to attract attention. There is an inherent desire to label and force into preexisting framework, especially that which is difficult to comprehend and to some extent it plays into the critiques and reviews of the restaurant. Hence the spaceship and spaceship food references but on multiple visits ET was never home. The Instagram feed of the restaurant only follows NASA, probably an oblique/humorous reference to the “Spaceship” labels that were bestowed on the restaurant in its opening phase.
Vespertine has also attracted eyes to the area with its motley collection of buildings by architect Eric Owen Moss and developers Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith. Structures with names like Samitaur Tower, Stealth, Pterodactyl, and of course the Waffle were probably a contributing factor to the Mad Max scenarios for Vespertine in the writings of some food writers and critics. The multi-disciplinary project has brought together luminaries from disparate worlds, the architect Moss, ceramicist Ryota Aoki, cutlery designer Yuichi Takamata, fashion designer Jona Sees who uniformed the front of house brigade, musical tracks by a Texan rock band and even a perfumer as guests are gifted a boxed memory, in one instance of frankincense, to take home. Blurring the boundaries between the creative arts and cuisine, the auditory and architectural components are the first impressions on arrival at the front door. There is no signage for the restaurant, and when the evening service begins, the neighborhood is deserted and quiet, except for the music.
In the words of Aldous Huxley, “After the silence which comes nearest to expressing the inexplicable is music.” It certainly plays a big part in the experience at Vespertine in the four tracks by the band “This Will Destroy You.” All of Kahn’s projects including his previous kitchen address at Red Medicine and even Destroyer, his casual restaurant that sits across the way, are named after albums by well known musicians so music is certainly an integral part of his artistic expression.
There is a shift in harmonies in the ambient music that plays as the sequenced meal progresses but it is a soothing backdrop to the relaxed experience that begins with champagne in the urban garden. An elevator ride from the foyer, after admiring the “Table”, a floating art installation, a stop for brief meet and greet with the chef in the kitchen, then up to the terrace open to the night skies for aperitifs and snacks before guests are led into the dining room one level below. The evening ends under the stars where it first initiates, on heated seats of the garden, with liqueurs and a handy telescope pointed to the cosmos. Befitting the exquisitely plated food the synchronized service is like a ballet that flows gracefully, never intrusive, warm yet professional. It has become customary for restaurant tables to be outfitted with artsy custom tableware but Vespertine in a nod to its spatial concept that intertwines the arts of food and form, even boasts a pitcher designed by its architect/muse Moss. The wine selection and the wine service is on par with the rest of the service throughout the time spent cocooned in the sinuously curved banquettes of the 22 seat main dining room.
To any well-versed international food traveler, the tasting menu leaves no doubt about the prowess of the chef who has worked his way through the top kitchens in the country. Is it a first in gastronomy, probably not internationally, but certainly ground breaking in Los Angeles. Having observed firsthand the reactions and appreciation of Kahn’s conceptual culinary skills by visiting international chefs from the top restaurants of the world it is evident that LA has added one more vibrant color to its rich culinary tapestry.
In several candid conversations with the tall lanky Kahn with his recognizable swathe of hair brushed to one side we spoke about the many misconceptions, labels and aspirations. The very eloquent, artistic, self-confessed “nerd” tells all in his own words:
Is the spaceship reference to Vespertine appropriate?
It was something taken way out of context. The media took it and ran with it because I guess it is a buzzworthy concept or a metaphor for our process. When we formed a collective of people working on this project, they all had different opinions, approaches and backgrounds but were working together. We had to come up with way of communicating with the various artists, and initially we had a hard time because we all speak different languages in terms of what we meant. If I used a word to express an idea their interpretation was different from mine so what I ended up doing was I made up a narrative that I used as a tool for all of us to communicate. I developed a story that I shared with all the artists. Whatever they perceived that story to mean to them was what ended up in the physical pieces we required of them to create for the project.
It is not literal in any sense, it is a fake, made up fictional story just like when we speak of talented musicians, I am not a musician, but I am really moved by music, I don’t have the language to be able to articulate my feelings and thoughts to them so we did it this way.
Is it something you appreciate?
No of course not!
It was meant to be an internal dialogue for us and not meant to be shared publically. People pick up on this alien space ship thing for a number of reasons. One being that none of us have seen one so the idea is based on what writers and movies have depicted so it’s something based on a culture that does not even exist on earth.
Consequently when you are a-cultural to a large degree like we are then in response to, “What’s the food or what is Vespertine?” They say it’s kind of Californian but not really. People describe cuisine based on the culture and here it’s not referenced to by any culture and these are ideas that are truly difficult to label so then the easy label to smack on it is aliens. It means nothing really specific so alien is an easy way to get out of that conversation. It is not a term that we use but what people have applied to us. It’s tricky because the idea of it makes it seem gimmicky and that is not what we are aspiring to at Vespertine. This is a real human connection and not about some silly sci-fi story.
It’s what the press put out in some article and everyone picked up on it and ran with it. These are not really journalists but just writing based on what other people have said. If someone comes in who has never heard of Vespertine before and describes their experience then nothing about it has to do with spaceships or aliens. It is usually described as a new experience. It’s human and emotional and not clinical in fact it’s the opposite, so alien is totally unrelated.
What does the term “avant-garde” mean to you?
It’s a word I learned as a young boy since I was a painter and painted a lot, in fact my mom has saved thousands of those paintings. I came across the word in a book that one of my father’s patients (his father was a psychologist), an artist, gave me. It was a book on Salvadore Dali that he got for me after he saw one of my paintings and thought it bore semblance to a surrealist painting. I asked what it meant and was told it means being true to things you see and portraying them how you see them, and not based on other people’s comprehension.
In a sense avant-garde is a label and to me it means authenticity. When you base off of pre existing constructs, or ideas and conceptions then its hard to be truthful and genuine in your work. So you have to isolate yourself like I did before opening Vespertine, get off the grid, and not intersect with others from your field or world. When you look at things with a completely internal approach and end up with something unique that does not exist before then that is inherently an avant-garde approach. It’s not something you do purposely to get a reaction or be provocative. It might seem that way but it is not the intent.
Moss refers to his architecture as Gnostic and says it is a very freeing concept that allows architecture to keep moving forward, evolving and changing. It does not have to deal with preexisting ideas of what should and should not be or can or cannot be. Once you take yourself off the grid it’s just you and the pen and the paper and that is the most open honest representation. So the word also connotes someone looking to change purposely that they think is non functional and needs to change and that is how we get into these debates about what it means to different people.
I don’t think the construct of restaurants is broken and when I found this site I had an emotional reaction to it and all I did for four years is to work on sharing that feeling with other people. It has nothing to do with what I feel about the restaurant industry or rather an internal extrapolation of this idea and being true to it.
Ricciotto Canudo in his manifesto The Birth Of The Sixth Art put forth the idea of cinema as the 7th art following architecture, music, sculpture, dance, painting, poetry. Is food the 8th art and are chefs artists?
“Artist” is not a profession and it means different things to different people. In general it is an idea; an artist is a person or individual who expresses their beliefs, opinions, the way they view the world and manifest it in whatever medium that speaks to them. In the case of painting a painter paints the way they see or feel the world or want to portray certain ideas. The chef being an artist is tricky because a lot of people associate it with what is physically on the plate. Oh! This plate is beautiful and this guy is an artist but in reality he didn’t make that plate but just cooked it and has to make forty more tonight. The guy who works on it called in sick so he has to teach someone on the spot to do it. You cannot teach someone to make your art for you in a few minutes so the idea is that the art follows the individual or whatever their perspective is and I think it has less to do with food being specific. Someone like Andoni Aduriz (Mugaritz, Spain) was born an artist before he knew he wanted to be a chef. Artists are born geniuses and born looking at and comprehending the world differently.
Whenever I have a conversation about artists and chefs I say that artist has nothing to do with your profession but it follows the individual like give me a bus driver who can be an artist. If you can choose to be a chef then you engage in a decree that you are operating under the assumption that you are doing something to make others happy. Happy can mean anything, comfortable, excite, intrigue. It all depends on where you want to take them.
What is tricky is that you admire these chefs and when you become a chef you want to be one of them but maybe you were not born an artist. Then you try to find little ways that they inspire you to create your own version of what they are doing. Only a handful of chefs are true artists with an impact on their industry, medium, or the world. If you were not born with that aesthetic you can say I am going to use all the tools at my disposal to portray myself as one.
Isn’t that where gimmickry comes into play?
It opens you up to it. A person should be able to follow whatever path they choose and if some guy wants to force being a creative chef should he say to himself hey listen you were not born with these innate abilities so you should do something else. The argument is that as long as this person is making something meaningful, with honesty and people find it worthwhile then more power to him. People are craving authenticity wherever they find it, so giving people the opportunity to fully capture thoughts and ideas will have never greater impact since food is an expressive medium.
Don’t all cooks try to please?
True at the very core it is essentially why you get into cooking in the first place. I got into it because of my grandmother who was a very lovely soul who I know she still watches me cook every night. My grandparents fled communism overnight and came to this country with nothing and gave me a wonderful life. So everything I do is meant to honor my grandparents and everything they gave us. The very notion, as a small chubby kid since my grandmother fed me a lot since I was always in the kitchen with her, of caring is part of who I am.
Are you a cook or a chef?
100% a cook. I am a chef because I am in charge of everyone and I have to do the schedules. I cook for a lot of reasons and it is quite common for me at the end of the day to go home after service and cook dinner for my fiancée because I still have more to give. It comes from a different place yet as a cook I need to fill that void.
Is food becoming very cerebral? Are we intellectualizing food too much? Is there a limit to it?
Completely. Ferran Adria showed us that way. You could say that we are becoming that way but then what point do you draw the line, how do you know where the line exists in terms of obsessing over it or intellectualism. Should there be a limit? What is that place or limit depends upon what is it that you are looking to achieve with your guest. That is where the artist chef deviates from the hospitality chef because an artist explores who he is and they show you who they are in the most raw and most exposed version and you can take it or leave it. An artist will not bend for you, they are who they are. A chef artist however also needs to be a hospitality chef and needs to be able to have that flexibility. If they or we here don’t connect with the guest because we are going over their heads we lose them and then we waste our efforts. It’s not like it’s something that took me a year to paint and now it’s crystallized forever. I have to do it every day. That act of going in everyday and making something is all at the end of the day about making others feel something. If they feel nothing, or feel disdain or feel silly is not I what I want for our guests.
What is your favorite story about this project?
My favorite is about the day I discovered the building and the instantaneous impact it had on me. I found it by accident as I was driving to pick up some nitrous chargers when I was at Red Medicine. The closest place was Surfas (restaurant specialty store) and the traffic was bad so it forced me to take a detour via Hayden. My initial reaction was did I just fall down a rabbit hole or what. I had never seen such a place before and then I saw the building that was being worked on and pulled over, stared at it for a while before getting out and walking over to it. I had no idea what it was and left as I had to get back to work. I had a horrible service that night as the chef and expediter since I had a difficult time focusing. In the early hours of the morning after leaving work I drove back to see it again, hopped a fence, opened the plywood door to the construction site and went inside. The only way I can describe it like the movie “Close Encounters of The Third Kind.” It was like Richard Dreyfuss who keeps drawing these mounds with mashed potatoes and stuff. It was sort of like that, seeing visions and I didn’t know what it was but it was drawing me. I became really obsessed and it was not like oh! I am going to open a restaurant here. In fact I didn’t even know what it was but it kept drawing me in. Eventually after doing some research on it and finding it there was no tenant to occupy the building I starting working on the project.
What was the first meeting with the owners like?
It was really nerve-wracking to say the least. The first time I called the broker and met with him and he asked what was my business and on being told I am a chef he asked what I proposed to set up, a corporate office or headquarters. On hearing that I wanted to place a restaurant project he laughed and said sorry we don’t do those type of things. I was really insistent and kept sending emails and asking for a few minutes with the landlord.
Finally he relented after a few weeks and said the owner Frederick Smith has agreed to meet with you for ten minutes. I used the time to put together a pitch and feeling super nervous walked in to the meeting. I had my laptop and some printed material and showed him and his team my idea on a digital deck that I made. They didn’t respond during the meeting and sat poker faced through the entire presentation. They asked a few questions and mostly listened quietly and thanked me and sent me on my way.
I walked out thinking I blew it and I should have said this or that and was beating myself up over it. Within five minutes while I was still driving home I got a call from the broker that the owner liked my idea and wanted to pursue it. What followed was a succession of a thousand yeses. There was a small yes followed by another and eventually we had it. I grew a lot of grey hairs that year but it’s been the most rewarding and magical thing that I will probably ever do.
Is this going to be home for a long time?
Yes this is where I have decided to make my career. When I first met with my partner I was very clear this is what I want. It is one in a lifetime opportunity and these don’t come along ever so often. It has had an emotional impact on me since day one and I couldn’t even imagine doing something else.
Moss and I think alike even though he’s 72 and we have a lot in common. During the opening process we found there were a lot of similarities between their industry and ours. It became a collaboration that led me to a deeper understanding of my own industry and craft. By working with them and people from other fields I understood my craft better about what’s more important. It was not like I changed my idea it made me look at it through different lens.
Has it changed your own perspective?
Working on this project changed my perspective on pretty much everything.
We are also so dependent on what the restaurant industry has to say about us. It seems like a play that you pour your heart and soul into creating. This place has so many parts, levels, individuals and it is a hard restaurant to describe in a few words. That is also one of the things that make it difficult for the restaurant industry to talk about us. It is a tough concept to describe and you cannot distill it to a couple of words or even sentences. It’s very human restaurant and it’s all about connection and our inter connectivity as people.
To want to be authentic and maintain our idea. We built the restaurant physically and conceptually in a very different way. We wove the work of all of these individuals into it and you can’t separate one from the other. It is one of the things I love the most and their watermarks are in every page. It really represents the true spirit of collaboration. I came up with the idea and I am the chef-owner and I get credit for all this stuff but so much of this restaurant is not about me and that is the part I am most proud of. These truly brilliant and genius individuals trusted me with their work. I also feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to make sure their work is portrayed in concurrence with their intention. They put as much heart and soul into it as I did.
Can you walk us through the restaurant?
The whole area is dark and deserted at night and as you approach our neighborhood and turn the corner onto our street you come upon the lighted column of our building. There are projectors that project different colors and shades on the building that morph into a kind of a big arrow that points towards us since it’s the same architect that designed both of these. There is a little bit of synergy there, so when you drive down this beautiful interesting street with crazy architecture on both sides to our building there is no signage only sound that attracts you to it. The sound component of the experience is really important one for me because it really takes the experience and makes it a transportive one. It takes you somewhere else.
Music is obviously important to you since all your projects are named after music albums.
(laughing) True, but in some cases it was not super intentional. For me music has always been a huge part of my creative process, more than any other art form and there would be these really intense creative sessions and moments where you would feel pure creativity being driven by these sounds. I wanted to figure out a way to share that amazing interaction and how do I synthesize it and relay it to others.
When I found this building and figured out the way it would go I knew sound will play a big role. In fact once you enter the property you realize sound is omnipresent and it’s everywhere. There are different tracks that have different things on them that play during the evening. One of the things that has inspired me throughout my life since I was a small child has always been art and music and this place represents the culmination of all of those things that historically I have been inspired by. It’s less of a culturally centered space and more a-cultural in that sense.
One of the big parts of this restaurant is the sound aspect. This was worked on by the group This Will Destroy You and possibly future groups will work on it too. The entrance track plays as you enter through double doors and go up the elevator to the kitchen where we have a brief conversation about the project, what it is and why it exists. We talk about simple things like dietary restrictions and I introduce myself to guests to put a human face to the whole project. It’s also a little bit of screening to understand a person’s energy right off the bat and as soon as the guest leaves we send notes to our staff about what we understood in those three minutes and we are pretty intense with it.
Snacks and aperitifs are served at the top level we want guests to be relaxed and forget the tension of getting here whether it’s traffic or otherwise. There is a beautiful view, especially in spring and summer when the quality of light changes and the hill behind us becomes green and you see the downtown, the mountains in the background and the architectural buildings around us. All of these are Eric’s and at night the stars and the lights of the city twinkle and it’s a beautiful sight.
The traditional form of the meal happens in the dining room. There is a really beautiful choreography that exists in here, very subtle, and Grant Achatz described it as “phantoms” serving. It’s lovely and meant to be minimal and not quite over the top. It’s very soft and in many ways it feels kind of Japanese to me even though it’s not Asian at all. Things are only elemental and not in excess. A lot of traditional fine dining is about opulence and excess and this is very much about minimalism.
Has your cultural background influenced your projects?
For me having a sensibility or sense of culture of where I am from doesn’t quite match because my mother is an immigrant from Cuba and my father is half Hungarian and half Sicilian and was adopted by a Jewish family from New York. He moved to Savannah where I was born and raised and now I am in Los Angeles. So, what does that cuisine look like?
Something that I think is relevant to this idea is that a chef looks to his past and history in terms of what motivates him and what he is creates in the future. A lot of it tends to be very cultural and relevant to a person’s history.
Is Vespertine the new form of fine dining? If not, how do you categorize it?
Fine dining is a tricky term because it comes with a lot of strings attached and I think though you can cut a lot of those strings, you can’t cut all of them. Fine dining is a word that means different things to different people and we are who we are every day and whether you decide to label us fine dining or otherwise we leave it to you. I really don’t have a place for it because my perspective on what we are, was drawn out of what it is, and not really based on what others think it is.
Your career and work history references a lot of chefs in the country, but who has inspired you globally?
So many chefs inspire us all the time. Certainly my mentor was Thomas Keller and then Grant Achatz and they still are philosophically for a lot of reasons. One of the things that made this project particularly special was the way it was conceived. That is very different from most other restaurants maybe any other actually. Mainly because I found the building while under construction and it was meant for a different purpose. I had these ideas ruminating for years about what is important to me and what I want to synthesize. For example when I saw “ElSomni” (a multi disciplinary culinary opera by the Roca brothers of El Celler De Can Roca) there were aspects of that which I have been thinking about for years. That seemed like a very intense experience and I wanted something a bit more nebulous so people would not get lost in the provocation.
Is this a spatial concept?
This project really represents that since I found this building which was very inspirational and really galvanized everything for me. It was something I had to acquire and to be able to put this project together. After I met Eric the architect whose perspective is so unique it became a really incredible relationship or rather collaboration. I had never encountered an architect like him at this level, he is an actual genius. When I started communicating with him it changed a lot of my initial thinking. The things that I learned from my mentors and all of that changed. I saw his perspective on things and it really had a big impact on me. He is insanely brilliant, irreverent, and very punk rock in a major way.
His work, dedication, and creativity are unmatched and he is one of the most creative people I have met in my life. We always claimed that we are very creative and then we met these creative people and realized that they are in a different league altogether. That started a different way of thinking and I started inviting people to collaborate and have a similar interaction with them. We included musicians and sculptors, perfume makers, textile artists, glass artists, all sorts of individuals. The idea was to allow their work to influence the experience in a way that I wasn’t able to. I curated the individuals but it was not me saying I want this and that but I brought them an idea or a narrative and asked them to enrich it with their art or whatever they thought was appropriate.
Every time we went to a new artist we did the same and at the end we ended up with something wildly different from everything else you have experienced anywhere. That is because it has no other identity it was not only an idea that was curated but as a sort of collaboration or a collective of ideas. What ended up happening was unique and even though I saw where it was going I had no idea of where it was going to be like till the very end.
What is the reaction of your guests?
It is very exciting for us and every night when we have guests come in, their experience is not linear at all. It’s very sporadic and nebulous. Every ones experience feels very different, that table and this table are taken through the same path but when they leave they are all going to leave with some very different impressions. There are so many qualities that the experience possesses and people tend to connect with certain parts more than others. The energy, based on who people are and where they come from plays a big role in that.
Have Angelinos been receptive to your concept?
Certainly. This restaurant exists here not because I thought it would be a good idea in Los Angeles. It was here, I found it here, it was born here, this is one of the most creative cities on the planet. If anything I feel a project like this can only exist here. If you look at LA from a food perspective you can make all sorts of arguments and it really warrants a different way of looking at it. If you use the same guide for measuring restaurants that you use for this then there is a lot of it that doesn’t quite fit.
Younger clientele are active on social media and more vocal, as opposed to the wealthy clientele that supported fine dining restaurants in the past. Who do you consider your target audience here?
I think our target audience are individuals or actually more people in the art world than in the food world. Individuals who would go see an exhibit at LACMA. People say that they want something new but don’t really get it because they want the evolution of something new. The foundation of everything new is really something that already exists.
It’s how you look at it. It’s mostly context that is new.
Food journalists are constantly trying to fit your restaurant into a relatable format. When you delve into something out of the norm, do you attract a lot of negativity?
That is a great question and in fact there are a couple of responses to it. Someone who has become a really close friend of mine is Eric and the second is Dolan (who has worked with Moss for over twenty years) who has become a close friend and mentor. Dolan said to me one day after we got some negative review, “You are exactly right where you want to be and you just don’t know it yet. You want to have one star reviews and five star reviews. If you have only five stars you are only too agreeable and everybody likes you. If you have only one stars its not good either but if you have both then you are obviously challenging things or the way people think. Imagine if Picasso who when he started painting for himself was widely criticized and if the imaginative criticism had gotten to him and he decided not to pursue his personal work.”
What is your mental mechanism for dealing with that negativity?
My mechanism is that I don’t read any of that negative stuff. I don’t read Yelp, or Jonathan Gold, or anyone else. I have way too much focus on what we do to create, it’s a mental thing and negativity is very destructive to the creative process. The other thing is we were very deliberate in our messaging and putting our web page together, with social media and all of those identifiers. So when people read our website or IG they don’t really know what it is. If it is a restaurant, fashion catalogue, or just weird, and that is all very deliberate. It’s not just one but all of those things and none of those things at the same time.
Rather than marketing ourselves as this is what we are, we market us as ambiguous and want people to have their own opinions about us. What is fascinating is if we get a group of four who are in their sixties and live in Beverly Hills for dinner and a four top of twenty something from the arts district they both leave really happy but for different reasons. I think that is something that makes our project special. It’s still meant for everyone and not those just from the intelligentsia who get it. It’s multi layered like a film and it’s not only for a small niche.
What is your menu planning process? Theme-based, or even an idea from a team member that you investigate?
It’s all me, without sounding like a jerk. The menu has a visual narrative, I draw what the menu looks like first, it has a combination of various pieces that make a whole piece. Just like putting a musical album together with a little bit of ebb and flow. Once I have drawn or sketched out I begin by applying notes to each of these pieces, whether it’s color or some sort of reference point for me that I know which one needs to be like a punch in the face, which one like a warm blanket etc. Then I approach possible flavors, textures and techniques. It’s not quite such a structured system it’s like being in a quiet room and yet very open.
Is the process intuitive or analytical?
It’s more emotion based than analytical. Although there are aspects of both it’s definitely about what is the tone that I am seeking to explore and what I want my guests to feel. There are a lot of sensory restaurants and we want people to feel in many different ways and it’s not just about provocation. A lot of it is about giving them space and since the service is so minimal we present something and not have a three minute discussion about it. We want you to exist in your own little world and the banquettes in the dining room are curved around so it feels very much like a cocoon. We like people to have a sense that they are floating and drifting somewhere else and having an interaction that means something to them.
Your menu has ingredients foraged by you in the city. Is it integral to your concept, and if so, why?
It is essentially a very personal way for me to keep in touch with the city (He had been out foraging for samphire in the wetlands that morning). I go out by myself and it also serves as an emotionally cleansing experience that allows me to feed the meter of giving back to the city. My restaurant required this city to be able to exist and function. So by using the plants of this place I feel that it allows me to keep in touch with where I am. When I was moving here I was advised against it and people said it’s just a big concrete jungle with highways etc.
The day that I physically moved here was also the first day that I set foot in this city. I took my dog for a walk that day and as I walked around West Hollywood I smelt jasmine and orange blossoms and said, “Holy shit the streets are scented here!” It smelt like Hawaii with highways. No one had ever mentioned that to me before and I was immediately enamored. So these foraging jaunts keep me connected to the roots of the city and provides endless material for my project.
Do you ever observe guests in the dining room while they are eating?
Yes and no. We have a camera for a number of reasons, one so we can control timing very well since the service is spread over several floors. The other is so I can see mistakes before they happen. I may notice that this table is marked for crab but they are getting something else next so I need to send a note.
It also adds more opportunity for us to learn about the guest’s experience. If I see someone’s body language that shows something is not right then I send a note or let my fiancé know. So I do watch a lot especially the service. I describe it as American football because you have two teams, not really offense and defense but it’s us and the guests. You don’t quite know where the guests going to go so the quarterback is the one who has to watch the play. We all have a play and before we go we have a huddle and say we are going to throw the ball here and play then see one guy walk around and call a new play.
What is your aspiration with this project?
I think we are doing exactly what we hoped to be doing and we are making progress in that. We are changing the way how people perceive the experience. We get people from all over who have dined at Noma, Mugaritz, and places like that and they say if we look hard we can see some of those elements but they are so different here. There is a kind of energy that permeates the whole experience and it feels very unusual and it’s like something we have never seen before.
My personal aspiration is to try in my best to inspire people in the same way that others chefs, artisans and individuals have inspired me in my life. I have been fortunate to work with some incredible chefs and incredible people. The things that they taught me both in very deliberate ways and others by observation, I want to try and do my part and give that too the next generation without sounding too much like an old man. Sometimes I feel like one.
I see a lot of people making their own decisions nowadays, they all have their own life and we want to support them. When I was younger I was inspired by certain people and I would say I want to be just like them and I would try my best to go work for that person and I did. I would try to emulate them, in their movements, their gestures, the way they spoke, the way they moved around the kitchen. Those people have made such a huge impact on me and one day I hope to give that to someone else. I must point out that when you want to find me you need to come to Vespertine and not look for me on any social media.
We are talking about your thought process and work, but who is Jordan Kahn the man, not the chef?
A weirdo and a nerd (laughing). I don’t really know. I think I am just somebody who is constantly trying to connect with myself and others and trying to find a way to make what we do meaningful and beautiful. In the way that people have done that history that have made an impact on me even if I didn’t know them.